Originally published in The Collapsar, January 2016.
Sex and breakfast. That’s what you smell like when you walk her back to her place in the mornings. That smell, coating the palm of your hand, lodged deep in the ridges and whorls of your fingerprints, under your nails. The ripe bouquet of her astringent juices mixed with the scent of the bacon she won’t touch, not even with her fingertips. You don’t mind, though. It’s just more for you, always more for you.
Every time you kiss her at her door, it’s like you still hunger, like breakfast was nothing but air and sunlight, like the sweaty sleepless night you just had actually happened months ago, or maybe to someone else. Then it’s back through the Mission and down to the BART station, and when you pass by, Cesar Chavez complains about the drought. Every fucking time.
This drought, baby, he says to you. I’m losing my mind. The sidewalks stink like bum piss. It’s too much. Can’t you get someone to, you know, do something about it? For me? You mustknow someone with a hose.
The snowman around the corner, he’s more direct. This city’s a goddamn toilet, he always says. Always has been. It smells like the polar bear exhibit at the zoo.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem strange to you that the murals talk. Maybe they talk to everyone. That’s probably it.
You think about how she likes to burrow herself into that space under your arm in the middle of the night, where she fits like a puzzle piece. How she drapes a lithe arm across your chest and calls you smush. Softly, like she’s singing it, right into your ear. And you. Just.Soar. None of the various substances you’ve dumped into your bloodstream over the course of your entire life have ever made you feel like that.
You take the steps down into the station two at a time and bounce right past the busker with the cracked violin, rasping and creaking away at the fog-eyed morning commuters. Sex and breakfast. It follows you all day. You savor it, lifting your shirt collar to your nose and breathing it deep, not caring how people on the train look at you, all of them probably haters anyway, probably not getting any themselves. Oh man, that scent. Why would you ever want to shake it?
The city’s in a drought. But that’s got nothing to do with you. Yours is over.
This is your fifth month in San Francisco.
This is the city you’ve chosen. It’s streaked in filth and graffiti and shit, awash in pretense and possibility, sticky with money. It’s sparkling identical glass and steel towers bursting out of the ground and blotting out the past with their long shadows, sprouting so quickly that the pavement has no time to heal before the next one germinates. It’s tucked-away staircases and secret garden spaces high atop the hills. It’s jackets in the middle of July. It’s the raw sewage stench of mid-Market. It’s authenticity and artifice, energy and inertia, searing passion and stark indifference all at once.
It’s everything you hoped it would be, and so much more. And you want so badly to love it, to love the living shit out of it, to love it so much you become part of it yourself.
This all sounded like a great idea back when you first had it, driving three thousand miles to live out a half-considered dream a full continent away from where you’d spent the vast majority of your previous days. Picking up and moving to San Francisco on little more than a whim is the kind of thing that almost sounds like an actual accomplishment if you don’t think about it too hard. Like winning a hot dog eating contest, or shooting your mouth off at someone famous and getting away with it, or finishing grad school.
But the city turned out to be cold, and not just in the summer. It snubbed every effort you made to get close to it. For the longest time, your very first thought after waking up in the morning was of leaving. Every day. Buy a plane ticket for that afternoon and just go, get the hell out. No gear, no baggage, no nothing. Just whatever you were wearing at that exact moment. Write the rest of it off as the cost of living your own decisions.
But that wouldn’t work, because there was nowhere to go, noplace to hide where you could convincingly pretend you weren’t a failure.
Then it was suddenly all moot, because just then you met her. And wouldn’t you know it—everything finally clicked, just like you always knew it would.
The days are different now. The city is no longer quite so impenetrable and unknowable. It no longer looms over you, intimidating you, no longer thwarts you at every turn. Its mysteries reveal themselves, almost in a flood, because she knows them all, knows what’s behind every door, knows all the secrets that live in plain sight on every next block.
One sunny and perfect Sunday afternoon, after lazy beers at Zeitgeist, she takes you to an open house. Let’s pretend we have a million dollars, she whispers in your ear as you climb the stairs, and you nod because you are only too willing to pretend this really is your life, to pretend there really is a we, to pretend anything she wants.
Okay, you whisper back just as the listing agent turns and notices you. I’ll be an astronaut, and you invented the hashtag.
The condo is steeped in the soft natural light coming in from the big front windows that look out onto an open dumpster. The view out the back is directly into another condo. The listing agent doesn’t seem to know what to make of you, can’t quite figure out if she should treat you like serious prospects or just another pair of tourists from Walnut Creek. So she probes.
So what do you do for work?
We step in front of cars and sue the drivers, she says. It’s pretty lucrative, but it gets kind of physically demanding after a while, so we have to work as a team.
Uh huh, I see. So. Um. Do you have kids?
Well … not anymore, she says, and she shoots you a conspiratorial glance. The listing agent retreats into her brochures. There are no more questions.
This could be your room, honey, you hear her call to you from the second bedroom. Look.She slides open a closet door. Plenty of room to lean at night.
Maybe I could get a hammock, you say.
No hammocks, she says. I’m not having you drill holes in my million-dollar walls.
On the bus ride to her apartment, there are no seats. You both stand in the aisle of the number 14, pressed against each other, making out the entire length of Mission Street in the middle of the day. People push past you, all elbows and backpacks and judgment, but they cannot dislodge your mouth from hers.
On the street, the high winds whip her hair up and around. It floats and jabs and reaches out to caress you. It stings like nettles when it pricks you in the eyes. I’m a hot mess, she says, and she holds onto you like she worries the wind might scoop her up and carry her off at any moment.
Don’t you ever leave me, she says.
I won’t if you don’t, you say back.
It is your best day yet.
Boy, that woman of yours, Cesar says to you later. I see her walking around here sometimes. You know she plays at proletariat, but she’s bourgeoisie down to her core.
What does that even mean, Cesar?
I don’t know, man. I just thought it sounded good.
Dude, you don’t even know her.
Maybe not, but neither do you, he says. And he’s right.
Something you’ve noticed: Everything in this city is uphill. Downhill is just a cruel illusion. There is no down. Not after scaling those hills, climbing those endless steps, riding those boundless highs. And even if you could go back down, why would you? You’ve seen that already. Lived it. Felt it–or rather, not felt it, because there is no rush down there, no burn, no cascade of endorphins exploding through you, nothing to feel.
And you swear to yourself that you’re never going back, not ever, because higher is better.
Except sometimes, higher is impossible. Sometimes you’re already as high as you can go. And you might not even know it.
Sometimes you skip work to see her in the middle of the day. She never closes her bedroom windows, never draws the curtains. Anyone could just see in. You wonder how far her noises carry down the alley behind her building. You wonder how many of her neighbors already know your name.
But sometimes you come by and she’s not home. Even if she knew you were coming. You stand there and press the buzzer, press it again, press it again. This time you hold it. This time you lean into it and try to push it straight through the panel and into the wall. You text. I’m here. Where r u?
Maybe she’s in the shower.
She’s not in the shower. You know this. But you let yourself pretend to believe it anyway.
Expectations are landmines, the black-and-white paisley tiger tells you as you pass by on your way back to the BART station.
I don’t have any expectations, you tell it.
Then what are you even doing here? it asks, and you have no answer for that.
Something you’ve noticed: She only tells you the truth when you’re inside her.
I don’t remember your name.
I can’t care about you.
I am trying to drive you away.
I will destroy you if you let me.
It’s all the other times when you can’t tell, when truth is just a coin flip. You keep me sane,she says, and you love hearing that so you believe it, because if you believe it maybe she’ll say it again. Don’t make out with any other girls, she says as you try to pull yourself away one morning, and she bites your lower lip hard enough to make it bleed. I can get pretty jealous.
You taste copper for the rest of the day. You work that sore spot on your lip between your front teeth, just hard enough to remind you of that morning’s buffet, and of what’s waiting for you after work. The dull pain of it sets your heart racing.
But when you come by that afternoon, she doesn’t answer her buzzer.
Everything is uphill here.
Mark my words, the snowman says as you pass by. One day, the chickens will come home to roost.
And when they do, you say, I will kill them and eat them. Think about that, chickens, before you come back here.
The snowman laughs at your bravado. You wonder if he can tell how full of shit you are.
What the hell does a snowman know about anything, anyway?
You start this morning by looking in the mirror and saying “I don’t love you anymore.” Over and over. You did this yesterday too. And the day before.
Who are you talking to? Her? The last her? Here?
That night you lay on the living room floor, both of you naked and spent. She pulls your hand up to her chest and rests it flat across her sternum. This is for you, she says. It’s yours, to use however you see fit.
You say nothing, press your hand down a little more firmly.
I’m putting my heart in your hands, she says. Don’t you want it?
Of course I do, you say. More than anything. I just … can’t seem to find it. Hang on.
But before you can, she pushes your hand away, quickly sliding it down the length of her body. Then I guess you’ll just have to keep looking, she says.
You watch her as she gets up and moves to open the window, and for a moment she is a silhouette, flawless in line and form, backlit by the placid nighttime lights high above in Dolores Heights. She holds herself there for a moment, between you and the city beyond, and you can’t tell whether she is observing or displaying. You reach for her, wanting to pull her back down on top of you, but your depth perception is faulty in the dark. Everything is further away than it looks, much further.
I think you’re destroying me, you tell her. I think I’m letting you do it.
She turns and folds her arms under her breasts. Her face is deep in shadow. The cityscape behind her slips out of focus as you try to pick out her expression. I’ve been putting ground glass in your coffee, she says. She gets down on all fours and crawls over to you, climbs up onto your chest. And I bet it feels incredible.
And she’s right.
Of course it always had to end.
Of course it did.
You’ve known it this whole time. You’ve been waiting for it. And when it does end it happens suddenly, with a blast of agitated incomprehensible Spanish erupting from her building’s intercom.
Maybe it’s the wrong apartment, you think. Maybe I pressed the wrong button. You try three more times, because you never know, maybe the panel’s wiring is crossed, or maybe you’re reading the numbers on the buttons wrong—hers is 307, right?—or maybe she has guests or something.
But it’s not the wrong apartment. You are just in the wrong place now. She is gone.
Just like that.
Numb, you wander through the Mission for hours, past all the sticky dive bars and grimy taquerias and the moraines of garbage and detritus. Fragments of thoughts stream into your head, winking into and out of existence far too quickly for your mind to pluck out any one of them and examine it. All you can do is walk. One foot forward. Then the other. It’s the most complex process you can manage.
Haven’t seen her, the snowman says. Sorry.
I don’t care, you say. I don’t care if I never see her again.
She’s gotta be around here somewhere, Cesar says. Don’t worry, you’ll find her.
But I’m not looking for her, you protest. I’m just … walking.
Okay, Cesar says. Sure, man. Whatever you say.
You mind? You’re standing on my face, Lou Reed complains.
You ache. Your lungs won’t fill all the way. Your stomach is full of hummingbirds. You want to scream, need to scream. Why can’t you scream?
Listen, Super Mario says as you pass, and of course you do listen, you stop everything and listen because you’ve known Super Mario since you were seven and he has never steered you wrong. Stop feeling so sorry for yourself. This city, it does not care about you. It’s just a collection of buildings and streets and strangers. It’s entirely indifferent to whether you exist or not. It doesn’t even know you’re here. It won’t notice when you leave.
Maybe for most people, sure, you say. But I belong here. It’s different.
No, man, Mario says. That’s a front.
This place, Luigi chimes in. Man, it will change your life. It’ll change you. But it won’t fix a damn thing for you, not even the things you didn’t know you brought. Maybe even especially those. You dig?
She didn’t even exist for you two months ago, Mario adds. So what have you lost?
I don’t know, you say. But something.
The days are different now. The buses are all wrong somehow, making turns they shouldn’t, leaving you adrift in uncharted distant neighborhoods. Everything is without texture. There is no reason to do anything. You are in the wrong place now.
You have been scrubbed from her digital life. Dropped from Facebook. Unfollowed on Instagram. Blocked on Twitter. The 21st century equivalent of doctoring newspaper photos to remove out-of-favor party apparatchiks.
You’ve been un-personed.
Fine then, you think. We’ll play it like that. But what can you do? She’s already severed all the links. She’s left no ties for you to break. All you can do is delete her from your phone.
Which you do, but the act feels hollow. It has no emancipating power. It’s a private act, and you realize the freedom actually comes not from knowing you don’t need her, not from knowing you don’t want her anymore, but instead from being able to throw that in her face.
Besides, you still remember her phone number. It’s the only one you’ve memorized in the last fifteen years. The act cost you nothing, so you don’t even own that much.
Eventually you text her. Even though you promised yourself you wouldn’t, that you’d leave her alone until she came back to you, no matter how long that took. That promise was immediately followed by another, that you wouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you inevitably failed to keep the first promise. At least you know you’ll keep the second.
Where did u go?
I miss u. Plz come back. Wherever u r
But no replies come. Until one finally does, weeks later, at 10:37 on a Wednesday morning.
It reads: Who is this?
You are in the wrong place.
The day you leave is the day the drought ends. The smudged ash sky over San Francisco rips open, as if the point of the Transamerica Pyramid has torn a great gash along its underbelly, and the rain is suddenly there again, like a long-lost brother. Afternoon traffic slips and snarls and throbs on the 101 as months of caked-on oils and lubricants are suddenly stirred from their bone-dry beds, soaked loose and free and now streaking their way along the pavement, twisting beneath the cars in shimmering ribbons of delicate toxins. The jabbering voices on the radio are giddy with disbelief. Rain. Rain. Rain!
This is the last time you will ever hear my voice, she never said to you. I thought it was only fair to tell you that. You can almost, almost hear her say the words in your mind, but each time you press rewind and play, it fades. Playback is just a little more distorted. The fidelity degrades just a bit more until you can’t quite tell whose voice it is that you’re imagining.
She is starting to dissolve. You’re already forgetting what she looks like.
Directly overhead is a sign, spanning the width of the highway. White arrows on a green background, pointing at you. Those lanes on your right go to Daly City. There are cars in those lanes, for some reason, patiently and on purpose waiting their turn to wind up–because winding up is the only way people ever really get there–at a punchline, a place where the broke or the boring or the un-hip move to be first pitied, then never visited, then forgotten about completely. These other lanes go to San Jose, and from there, wherever. That’s where you’re headed: Wherever.
There’s always Austin, you think. But you’ve tried that already. Austin was the sweet girl from down the street who you flirted with for a couple years but never did quite fall in love with, no matter how hard you tried.
Still. It’s not a bad second choice. It could work this time.
Or maybe not, because you have to actually get there first. A sea of cars hems you in, all of them immobilized by the unexpected rain and the chaos it has brought. This, you realize, was to be expected. After all, nothing is actually easy about this place. Everything takes more money, more time, more planning, more shoving, just more–until one day, there is no more, you have nothing left to give and so you may as well get out while you still can, leave your twenty-six-hundred-a-month studio apartment for the next sucker standing in line, freshly scrubbed and just in from Tempe, already drowning before he even knows it’s happening. But even leaving is harder than it should be.
It takes more than just a single deluge to end a drought. There is no reason to think the next day will bring more rain, or the next, or that this is anything more than just a momentary disruption of the dry spell that has become the new normal. Expectations are landmines.
But for now you sit and wait, for nature and the people in front of you to get their collective shit together, because you couldn’t turn around now even if you wanted to. Hell, you couldn’t even get to Daly City. You can’t even see Daly City from where you are.